Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

River Crossings

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Our second attempt to reach the knot plateau failed, but reaching the Sutton River was no small consolation. We began the day upbeat. We broke camp at the ATV trailhead used by Inuit hunters to reach into the vast Sutton floodplain. Joshua thought it might get us to the river, and at this lower reach it would be wide and shallow. Getting there would require a 15-mile ATV trip across nasty high ground and wetland tundra, but once across the river the knot plateau would only be a short jog.

Choosing our route, we strike out to cross the Sutton River Basin.

Choosing our route, we strike out to cross the Sutton River Basin.

Our trip to the Sutton was not as difficult as our previous attempt about 15 miles upriver, but we still had to cross about 3 miles of wetland on ATVs loaded to the hilt with enough gear and supplies to make camp for 6 people for about 10 days. We struggled for about 2 hours and finally reached the slow-moving wilderness river. On the way, we saw caribou, Pacific Loons, Long-tailed Jaegers, a Peregrine Falcon, Red-necked Phalarope, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and fortunately no polar bears or even bear signs. We arrived in a section of the river that was fairly wide and too deep to cross. We still felt optimistic because the river bank was high ground, so we could drive up or downriver over easily traversed terrain.

Rick Lathrop uses both topographic maps and satellite imagery to help guide us through this tundra wilderness.

Rick Lathrop uses both topographic maps and satellite imagery to help guide us through this tundra wilderness.

A Pacific Loon

A Pacific Loon

The riverbank provides safe refuge from predators for hundreds of Snow Geese, which are flightless while they molt their feathers.

The riverbank provides safe refuge from predators for hundreds of Snow Geese, which are flightless while they molt their feathers.

The river bank was ice-scoured but vegetated with a low willow that puffed with pollen as we drove through it. On first sight we felt satisfied at reaching this long-sought goal, and pleased with the sight of a free-flowing Arctic river running crystal clear with cold, fresh snow melt. We felt certain of a crossing.

Mark and Steve cross a small stream while Josh and Rick look on.

Mark and Steve cross a small stream while Josh and Rick look on.

But after 4 attempts with the ATV we could see the river was too large to cross. At the wide areas it flowed slow and deep, and in the narrow areas fast and deep. We could see the knot plateau just on the other side, but it could have been in New Jersey and we would have had about the same chance of reaching it.

Josh makes one of four attempts to cross the Sutton.

Josh makes one of four attempts to cross the Sutton.

Our feeling of failure was short-lived. With the sun swinging low on the horizon, we knew we had better make camp. We did so on a beautiful bluff overlooking the river, with the wetlands reaching out in all directions. In the distance, rocky hills flanked the river up to the low mountains in the northern part of the Southampton. It was a glorious Arctic visage.

Our camp along the Sutton.

Our camp along the Sutton.

Our failure was a tough break, but we still have time to find knots. We will be spending the night in one of the hunters’ cabins near where we will jump off for our final attempt at reaching the knot plateau. We have to prepare for a 9-day stay, but we only have room for supplies on three ATVs. The necessities must be judged against their weight and bulk – we will make only one trip and, if, successful we will need shelter and enough food for 6 people.

2readytogo

We only have 3 ATVs on which to pack supplies for 6 people for 10 days.

At first you think, “Well, we only need breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sleeping bags, tents, a cook stove, and clothes.” Then you think about dessert – we should take the Oreos, candy bars, and Twizzlers. Then you think – we must have bread or muffins, so we should take the collapsible oven and some oil, margarine, and seasonings. What about clothes? Yes, you could take the minimum, but what if it gets really cold and you need more layers, or what if it gets warm or wet and you need more pairs of socks and underwear? One can see that it starts to get complicated. When you are out in the field for 9 days and you are young, it is much different than when you are not. You want some comfort – even luxury.

It may be summer at home, but here conditions rival those of winter in NJ. The winds bite hard and the intermittent rain feels like you’re being sandblasted. Mandy is in full winter gear and still feels just barely warm.

It may be summer at home, but here conditions rival those of winter in NJ. The winds bite hard and the intermittent rain feels like you’re being sandblasted. Mandy is in full winter gear and still feels just barely warm.

For example, Mandy and I had to decide whether we could do without chairs. We left our collapsible ones at home because of the weight, hoping we could just buy two in Coral Harbor. Unfortunately, there were only the staking plastic ones. We had to decide if we could tie them to the top of our load (and look like the Beverly Hillbillies with an ATV).

Thankfully, water is not an issue. One of the joys in the Arctic is the clear ice melt water almost everywhere.

Mark collects water from the Sutton in an Arctic sunset.

Mark collects water from the Sutton in an Arctic sunset.

It will take us a day to get out and set up for our next attempt. This time we will cross the Sutton at its head waters and try to get to the knot plateau from the west side.

Everyone working at the end of the day while we stay in the hunters’ cabin near the Sutton River

Everyone working at the end of the day while we stay in the hunters’ cabin near the Sutton River

Packing to get ready for our third attempt to reach the knot plateau

Packing to get ready for our third attempt to reach the knot plateau